Why your small intestine is more than just a 20ft long tube
Ever been ‘sick with worry’ or had an inkling ‘in the pit of your stomach’? The phrases we use to describe stress, fear and even intuition often refer to our guts – and for good reason. ‘The brain and gut are so closely linked that they can have a powerful affect on each other,’ says nutritional therapist Dr Marilyn Glenville. ‘Anxiety gives most people butterflies in the stomach, and for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety can trigger symptoms.’
Those in the know often refer to the gut as the second brain, because it has its own nervous system and, just like the brain, it’s also filled with chemical messengers – or neurotransmitters. Experts have now discovered that when the gut is off-kilter, we’re more likely to suffer mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, opening up the possibility of new therapies and even prevention by treating the second brain as well as the one on top of the shoulders.
‘The effect of gut health on mental health is becoming increasingly linked, which is not surprising when you consider that up to 90% of neurotransmitters – such as serotonin – that influence behaviour are created in the gut,’ says nutritional therapist Kerry Beeson.
It’s known that, in times of stress, anxiety and depression, the body’s production of the so-called happy hormone serotonin slows down, but recent studies suggest that by upping the number of good bacteria in our digestive systems we can increase how much of this feel-good chemical our bodies make.
We have a complex ecosystem living in our digestive tract. Known as the microbiome, it’s made up of trillions of microscopic living cells, including beneficial bacteria that help us absorb nutrients from the food we eat. This good bacteria, or probiotics, also help the body handle stress and supports our ability to fight off illness and infection (up to two thirds of our immune system is based in the gut). But good bacteria can be reduced, and even eliminated completely, by taking antibiotics, steroids, the Pill and HRT. Stress, sugar, artificial sweeteners and alcohol can also diminish these so-called friendly bacteria, but there are steps you can take to support the good guys.
THE GOOD GUYS
Experts say a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit and veg is key to achieving and maintaining a healthy good/bad bacteria ratio. Vegetables such as leeks, Jerusalem artichokes and onions are high in prebiotics – fibres our bodies can’t digest but which create an environment in which probiotics can thrive. Eating traditionally fermented foods such as sourdough bread, sauerkraut, gherkins, miso and natural yogurt can also boost good gut bacteria.
Dr Glenville advises eating little and often to avoid the moods swings that can be caused by blood sugar highs and lows, and recommends taking a good probiotic liquid supplement daily. ‘Many of the probiotic drinks available on the high street are loaded with added sugar, which isn’t good for controlling yeasts and other negative bacteria in your gut,’ she explains.
‘As so many factors can negatively influence gut health in our modern lives, from lifestyle to environment, most of us need a helping hand in this area,’ says Kerry. She recommends taking a supplement such as Optibac Probiotics For Every Day, (£11.29 for 60, Optibac Probiotics), which contains probiotic strains Lactobacillus acidophilus Rosell-52 and Bifidobacterium longum Rosell-175 – French researchers found these could have beneficial psychological effects.
Intermittent bouts of bloating, nausea, diarrhoea and abdominal pain affect most of us at some point in our lives, but some people experience these problematic issues on a daily basis. Quite often, these can be the symptoms of lactose intolerance, which is thought to effect 5% of the UK population. This condition comes about when there is down-regulation of lactase – an enzyme that breaks down lactose, or ‘milk sugar’ – activity in the adult gut.
Dr Anne Mullen, director of nutrition at The Dairy Council (Milk), says: ‘It is not recommended that people with lactose intolerance eliminate dairy from their diet, due to the key nutrients it provides. It is thought that 200ml of milk can be consumed per day without any adverse effects, and live cultures in yogurt improve lactose digestion in those who have difficulty digesting lactose.’ It seems that even with all the work the gut does, from helping us digest food to boosting our immune system and lifting our mood, it still has yet another important role to play. Evidence is mounting that a ‘gut feeling’ might be more than a figure of speech – research now shows that it has an affect on our intuition.
Health and wellness expert Chris James, who believes a good gut is key to maintaining vitality and longevity, is writing a book about the link between the gut’s enteric nervous system (ENS) and
our ability to know things without our ‘thinking brain’ processing them. He points out that about 90% signals passing along the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the abdomen, are sent from the gut to the brain, not the other way around. ‘That means we can know things intuitively at the gut before we do cognitively,’ he says.
‘Humans have an innate ability to process information about what’s going on around them, and put a response into action separate from the brain and central nervous system,’ adds Chris (chrisjamesmindbody.com). ‘The ENS can work independently of and in conjunction with the brain, although you are not conscious of your gut “thinking”.’
Whatever your gut instinct, there’s no denying that if you look after your digestive tract, it will look after you – in more ways than most of us ever imagined.
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FIND YOUR BALANCE
5 ways to keep your gut healthy and strong
Limit medications. Antibiotics wipe out gut bacteria, and many prescription drugs, including pain relievers, can interfere with the digestive process, causing heartburn and acid reflux.
Carrying excess weight around the midriff can affect the digestive system, putting pressure on the stomach. A little exercise will help you lose that spare tyre and boost your mental wellbeing.
Avoid sugar (including in low-fat foods) as it has a profoundly adverse effect on the gut. Sugar feeds harmful bacteria, which then causes bloating and can do damage to the gut lining.
Research has shown that eating red meat may cause bacteria in the gut to form a substance called TMAO. This is known to promote artery blockage, one of the leading causes of heart attacks.
A new diet that’s good for your digestion will bring about significant changes in the array of gut bacteria in as little as six days, so there’s no excuse for putting off changing habits of a lifetime.